In the light of reader-response criticism, I believe Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be a story of transcendence beyond barriers set against women in patriarchal societies, such as Arab societies. I empathize with the female protagonist whose imaginative power helps her break free from the suffocating wallpaper pattern surrounding the room. Her contemplation of patterns and furniture since childhood fascinates me; I have always been obsessed with walls and tiles as a child, as I used them to create escapades. I used to think it made me different. Sometimes I even contemplated changing the world.

Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes Du Maroc, Harem Women Writing.

The protagonist, also the narrator, has been ‘kept’ in a room by her husband, John, who thinks she has “nervous depression”. He orders her to stay in her room and not write. She thus reports of her brother and John: “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work. With excitement and change, would do me good”. It impresses me that despite her compliance with men’s instructions at surface, she secretly rebels through writing. I find their inability to prevent her from writing thrilling, because mental creativity, in opposition to the body, is far beyond captivation. Her rebellious writing mirrors my eleven-year-old solitary poetry writing. I became a joke because I preferred solitude to socializing. The condemnations directed at me were painful as the condemners had been the reason why I chose solitude in the first place. As an eleven-year old girl with two older teenage brothers , I felt detached, unconcerned yet exasperated at their battles. Mom warned me against meddling in their fights so I would not get hurt. Thus, my room’s privacy became my boundless universe. Just like the narrator’s mental reformations of the wallpaper, I practiced viewing my room’s objects differently, therefore creating a dove from the table lamp, a classic portrait from the mirror, or sea waves from the curtain.  I turned these material surroundings into vehicles that generated poetry and released my repressed consciousness. My imagination could transcend walls to surreal realms. I became the center of my world that others around me thought of me as a selfish introvert (surprise!). Bringing my own experiences to the light of recognition, I believe the narrator’s “nervousness” has resulted from alienation. Hopefully, she finds a way out through writing.

Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes Du Maroc #23

The narrator’s description of John as “careful and loving” because of his confinement of her movements with “special directions” shocked me at first. I later modified my understanding upon recognizing the irony of the mock reader. John‘s ‘superficial’ protection is identical to that of men in Arab society; their “protection” of women functions only to shield their misogyny, or other men’s ‘dignity’. I always wonder whether some men are born with threatened manliness, because they aggressively defend it although nobody pinpoints it. Perhaps inattention to their manliness is what provokes them most!

The barred windows and the rings in the narrator’s room remind me of asylums; full of repetitive patterns and bound to make one lose sanity. I associated John‘s choice of the room with misogynists’ constant desire to find women home; they want them doing chores without exceeding these to nurturing activities, even within houses’ borders. However, if women complain or cry, they find it unreasonable. Ironically, they always complain about their ‘reasonable’ sufferings in the ‘outer world’. Such is John, who finds no reason for his wife’s sufferings.

Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes Du Maroc #52.

The narrator’s fear of getting caught writing by her sister-in-law strikes me the most. It reminds me of how women in my society warn each other not to answer men back during arguments because it would infuriate them as they are “female”. I always wondered why men’s sensations were so fragile while they continuously criticize female sensitivity? I am finally relieved when the protagonist says, “I am getting really fond of the room. Perhaps because of the wallpaper”.  Her derivation of comfort from the “pointless pattern” marks her substitution of patriarchal domination with her imaginative powers. This reminds me of my attempts at communal reforms to declare that I was a human, too, who sometimes felt enraged, just as men do, or worse. Now that I have matured, my acquaintances accept me as I am. They even praise my poetry. They do not ask me to change my clothing colors or my eating habits. I find my restructurings similar to the narrator’s intent of releasing the woman “creeping behind the pattern” and the other heads. This is why I have always wanted to be a writer; to reform society at large. Sometimes I forget my dream because of the monotonous ‘patterns’ around me. I then try to revitalize my consciousness, to unlearn, and to un-see the familiarity which oppression comes disguised in. I am shocked when the narrator has to creep over John, who faints and falls across her path; his fainting does not meet my expectations. I expect violence to materialize, perhaps because I associate men’s use of physical violence with their defeat. Reconsidering the matter, I recognize that John is mentally feeble that even his body failed him. I wink at the mock reader, “So, who is ‘unreasonable’ now?”.

Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes Du Maroc, Dancer Triptych.

I find “The Yellow Wallpaper” memorable as it causes me the same stinking smell it causes to its narrator. Yet, it reminds me that the pattern is merely a mental object whose existence relies on my consciousness; the narrator’s recreations of the wallpaper are not unlike those I create with her narrative. The mock reader makes me aspire for limitless feminine freedom, in a mid-world where she and I would meet, without interruptions. This reading experience made me value fiction’s elasticity as it synchronized with my persistence. I now realize that nobody can cage my capabilities as a woman; everything I need is within me.

Read more from Leen Arkhagha.
Artwork by Lalla Essaydi was attached to Arkhagha’s original essay for visual reference.
Image courtesy of artist Lalla Essaydi’s website.